Within the last few weeks, my seven-year-old autistic son has become very interested in marble runs. Specifically, the kind that he can construct from large kits that produce sophisticated structures. Over the years he has received various sets of marble runs as gifts, but only lately has he begun to use them in earnest, and also in combination with one another. Recently we gave him a new set my husband had ordered some time ago, but that we were holding in reserve for a special occasion. When my son’s school shut down because of the coronavirus, along with the other programs and services that he receives, we decided that the moment to break out the new toy had arrived.
It has been interesting watching my boy engage two extremes of himself. On the one hand, he has tapped into his high intelligence, quickly figuring out how each piece of the new marble run functions, without relying on the instruction manual that comes in the box. By day’s end, he was fitting components together like an old pro so that the marbles he fed into the maze traveled exactly as he wanted them to. On the other, he has had to cope with feelings of dismay and frustration when his creations come crashing down for one reason or another—emotions he is less equipped to deal with than his typical peers. Since his language is quite limited, he cannot give voice to his anger like other kids, nor receive encouragement from us that this little disaster, too, shall pass.
Nonetheless, the word I would use to describe what I have observed as I watch my son play with his marble run is resilience. No matter how many times his carefully constructed mazes fall down, he rallies and rebuilds, usually pretty quickly. Over and over he picks up his virtual tools, wipes the sweat off his brow, and begins again. And while I sometimes grow tired of hearing him yell at various intervals, mostly I admire my child’s refusal to surrender to defeat. He repeatedly pushes forward despite deficits that give him every excuse to pull back. In short, my son does not give up, even though his autism assaults him every day in ways he cannot control and that would bring many of us to our knees.
There is nothing like a worldwide pandemic to test what we humans are made of and how, ultimately, we will respond. I myself could use a lot more resilience day to day as I grapple with factors I cannot control, both seen and unseen. Will there be supplies at the stores? Am I risking too much to venture out? How do I keep my special needs child from regressing, losing skills he worked so hard to master? Will my family stay healthy? Will my own mind survive the relentless pressure and anxiety without cracking?
Or how about this: how do I connect with God in all of this when panic rumbles beneath the surface of my awareness like an underground volcano?
As it has so many times before, Biblical narrative came to my rescue as I pondered these disturbing questions—specifically the story of Jonah. To sketch out the tale: God sends the prophet to Ninevah to warn its inhabitants of imminent punishment, but Jonah runs the other way. He doesn’t get very far, however, when the ship he’s booked hits a storm, and he is cast into the sea to counteract divine punishment for his disobedience and save the crew from certain death. God commands a great fish to swallow Jonah for three days and three nights, during which he has a real heart-to-heart with God and himself, that takes the form of a haunting psalm. Right on cue, after Jonah finishes praying this poem, the fish vomits him up on dry land.
The prophet then goes to Ninevah as he’s told, preaches his message of impending judgment, which the pagan city actually believes. The entire population repents so sincerely that God relents and refrains from destroying them as planned. Rather than rejoice that a civilization has been saved, Jonah grows irritated with God and is last seen arguing with his maker over the value of bestowing mercy on those who don’t deserve it.
While it might be all too easy to condemn the prophet for his disobedience to God, as well as his hard-heartedness towards the Ninevites, I cannot help but admire Jonah for his brutal honesty. Whether he is confessing his desertion to the sailors during the storm (1:10) or lamenting that his fishy imprisonment fits the crime (2:3-6), Jonah tells the truth. One might even say that he tells the truth to a fault, becoming borderline insolent as he criticizes God for sparing the Ninevites (“I just knew You wouldn’t go through with it.”) and using divine compassion as justification for his rebellion (“It’s why I fled in the first place.” [4:1-3]).
Call it pluck. Call it chutzpah. Call it faith. I want whatever Jonah has while languishing in the belly of that fish. Cold and wet, wrapped in darkness, and heaving about the ocean’s depths, he never gives in to despair. Nothing about his conditions suggests he will survive his ordeal. Quite the opposite—he believes it is God himself who has cast him into the sea as a death sentence (2:3-4).
And yet he calls out to God anyway. Three times in a short, nine-verse psalm. (2:2,7,9). Even as he endures relentless physical distress and danger (sound familiar?), he envisions his prayers rising up to God’s temple. He even promises to give thanks there once he is delivered, which he declares he will be. “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” Jonah sings, ending his song on a high note despite his abysmal circumstances. That is when God orders the fish to vomit the prophet back onto dry land.
(Incidentally, the Hebrew word used for “dry land” – yabashah – appears not only in the creation story of Genesis, but also in the rescue story of Exodus. In both narratives, whether God is differentiating earth from sea or parting waters for his people to walk on, the dry land is something he and he alone specifically provides. So when Jonah is disgorged onto yabashah, we know his path going forward will be forged by God. As will ours when we cry out to him too.)
There are two things I want to say about Jonah’s resilience, which sees him through an assignment he abhors and a punishment he accepts. Whether wrestling with challenges he doesn’t ask for (“Go to Ninevah!”) or difficulties he does (through disobedience), Jonah fully expects God to meet him where he is, whether he deserves divine help or not. That expectation of aid totally floors me, because I so often find myself turning away from prayer when I have not held up my end of the bargain and feel I have let God down. How badly I need to be reminded that God did not get into a relationship with me for what he could get out of it, but primarily for what he might give to me. I need to cry out for salvation way more often.
Second, although Jonah may be quick to ask God for help he does not deserve, he is equally quick to forget that others should get that kind of help too—maybe even through him. When God spares the Ninevites, Jonah actually says, “Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). How Jonah’s complaint humbles me. How often have I looked sideways at another person, comparing their situation to mine, and concluded that God has treated me unfairly? How many times have I closed myself off from noticing another’s burden or pain, because I was too busy judging their outward appearance? How often have I missed opportunities to be a channel of the kind of grace that repeatedly sustains me?
In my own attempt to be honest, I’ll admit that I have not known what to do with my emotions during this crisis. It is hard for me to imagine getting through the next few weeks or even months without some kind of catastrophe striking close to home. But watching my son build—and rebuild—his marble run has inspired me to persevere no matter what I’m facing. And reading about Jonah has reminded me that one way I can persevere is through prayer, no matter how limited my language of intercession. I can boldly ask for all the help I want or need, no matter how far-fetched it may seem considering the place that I’m currently in.
None of us asked for corona. God knows that. I believe he wants to pull us from belly of this beast and set our feet on solid ground. And he wants us to reach out to each other even as we lift our eyes and voices towards his holy temple—abandoning the question of who deserves what in terms of aid, support, and, most of all, love.
May your feet find yabashah. And may your prayers bring peace.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.